The Joys of Jazz Parties

Perhaps the super-bowl of jazz parties was originated by Dick Gibson, a Mobile native. Dick was a football star at the University of Alabama and a jazz enthusiast. He went to New York as a writer and got involved in the world of finance. During that time, he joined the jazz scene and sponsored a group he called “World’s Greatest Jazz Band.” Some years later business ventures caused his move to Colorado. In 1963, he and his wife Maddie missed the New York jazz scene, so they invited some musician friends to perform for a weekend house party and invited some of their Colorado friends to help them enjoy the music and share the expenses.

Urbie Green (photo by Norman Vickers

Perhaps a word or two is needed to distinguish a jazz party from a jazz festival. A jazz festival usually is a multi-stage event, frequently held outdoors and of generally lower admission costs. A festival usually has patrons who come and go as their schedules and desires dictate.

A jazz party, on the other hand, usually is a one-stage event in comfortable circumstances such as a ballroom with tables for food and bar service. Jazz party patrons are committed to the entire event and, of course, the number of attendees is smaller and the charge for the event proportionately larger.

Norman Vickers Jr., Al Laser, J.C. McAleer, Dick Gibson (photo by Norman Vickers)

By the time I was privileged to be a part of that Dick Gibson Jazz Party in 1985, the Labor Day weekend event was held in a downtown Denver hotel with 60 world-class musicians performing for 600 paying guests. After reading about the Gibson jazz parties, I contacted some Mobile jazz friends and inquired about the details of getting an invitation. Gibson graciously extended me an invitation and at my first party took about half an hour to give me the details about how he managed inviting the musicians and how the guest list worked. Many members of the “Tonight Show” band were regularly invited as were Benny Carter, Milt Hinton, vocalist Joe Williams, Bob Haggart, Phil Woods and Peanuts Hucko. Some European artists were invited as well as some Americans residing in Europe.

Joe Williams (photo by Norman Vickers)

The guest list also was impressive. Jazz writers Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler always were in attendance. Jean Bach, the woman who directed and narrated the “Great Day In Harlem” video, also was a regular attendee. Jean’s late husband had collaborated with the widow of Johnny Mercer to do a book on Johnny and his compositions. When our Jazz Society was doing a program on Johnny Mercer, I needed a copy of that book, which was difficult to find. I wrote Jean and she kindly donated one to us. It, too, may be found in our jazz collection and the downtown West Florida Public Library.

Jay McShann, Plas Johnson (photo by Norman Vickers)

I attended the Gibson Labor Day weekend jazz parties annually from ’85 until it closed after 30 years in 1992. There were many happy musical memories and new acquaintances made.

This leads to our Jazz Society’s venture into sponsorship of three January Pensacola Jazz Parties, from 1989 to 1991. Things were going well with our new Jazz Society with a 1983 birthday coinciding with the beginning of Pensacola JazzFest — a cooperative effort of WUWF-FM, Pensacola Arts Council and our newly formed Jazz Society.

Dick Gibson (photo by Norman Vickers)

Record producer Gus Statiras was a good friend. Gus, a native New Yorker, had married a lovely woman from Tifton, Ga., during WWII. He would organize jazz recording sessions in New York, Chicago, New Orleans or elsewhere and produce under his own label. His home base was Tifton but he’d travel wherever there was jazz. He had an extensive LP collection and as LPs were transitioning to CDs, he’d record in both formats. The Jazz Society board felt that it would be feasible for us to partner with Gus to produce our own Pensacola Jazz Party. It was held at the (then) Hilton Grand Hotel in downtown Pensacola.

Things went well with the jazz party. We had bassist/composer Bob Haggart, clarinetist Kenny Davern, pianists Dave McKenna and Ralph Sutton and drummer Gus Johnson, among many others.

Bill Watrous, Dan Barrett (photo by Norman Vickers)

Our parties were well attended by jazz fans from Maine to California; they recognized the talent and were pleased to pay the price of approximately $200 for the 2 ½-day weekend event. This was during the time of winter migration to Florida, so many of our patrons would make the stop in Pensacola to attend our event. Participation from our Pensacola friends, however, was slight. In fact, I’d have people who were not jazz fans or members of the Jazz Society stop me on the street and ask, “Norman, how can the Society charge $200 for that jazz party?” My response normally was, “That’s what it costs to produce a quality jazz party. If you can produce it for less, we’d be pleased for you to take it over!”

Our guests were interesting, too. We had Chester McClarty, M.D., who was William Faulkner’s physician among a group who came from Oxford, Miss. Having a common interest in Faulkner, we struck up a friendship and I got some interesting background information on the famous author.

Bulee “Slim” Gaillard was a drop-in guest at our third Jazz Party. I had known that Slim grew up in Pensacola (most writers succumbed to the Gaillard BS about “I was born in Cuba and my father was a ship’s captain”) but we had never crossed paths before. The family brought him and introduced him at the door. We invited him to have a seat. He looked tired, somewhat subdued; although he was well dressed, it appeared that his suit was too large for him. He told me that he was on the way to visit his son in London. A few weeks later, we read that Slim had died in London. Research by UWF public history graduate students about Slim and other famous Pensacola jazz musicians, including Gygi Gryce and Junior Cook, is available in the jazz room at our downtown West Florida Public Library.

Our third Pensacola Jazz Party coincided with the beginning of the first Gulf War and the final collapse of Eastern Air Lines. Gus had worked for Milt Gabler at the Commodore Record shop and invited him down for a press conference. Gabler was famous for making his own jazz recordings and befriending many of the jazz musicians. However, because of the beginning of the Gulf War, no reporters attended as they were all assigned to covering the changes in security at our several area military bases, Eglin AFB, Tyndall AFB and Pensacola Naval Air Station. But for the jazz party audience, Gus’ interview with Milt Gabler was most informative and entertaining. And I had opportunity to interview Milt privately for a Pensacola weekly published by Pfeiffer Printing Co.

The Jazz Society board decided, after our third Jazz Party, that we needed to focus our efforts in building our own membership. And the Atlanta Jazz Party began a 20 year annual event that following year. So, the Jazz Society began an increased effort to recruit new jazz members. And this was beneficial as we “inherited” the sole responsibility for Pensacola JazzFest in 1998 and have produced the Pensacola JazzFest annually since 1999.